Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Windows” is ultimately a poem about the relationships between poetry, life, and death. Poetry, like a crystalline window, may allow an individual to gain access to once-forgotten dreams or realms of experience that defy the usual laws of human existence. Therefore, poetry can be a useful crutch for those who are approaching their own death. The old man “straightens his old spine,” moves his “rotting body,” and presses his “ashen gaunt and skeletal face” to the pane of glass, seeking the warmth of his youth that has been lost. Evidently, however, Mallarmé feels that such a personal use of poetry is inappropriate, since the narrator of the poem is disgusted with the old man’s behavior, but Mallarmé also insists that the old man’s behavior is unavoidable, that humans need poetry as much as they despise its artifice or its use of symbols to convey worlds long past. By shifting the perspective of the poem from the old man, blissfully unaware that the narrator is watching his reverie, to the poet-narrator himself, who loathes his own inability to see more than his own image in the glass, Mallarmé suggests that perhaps taking pleasure in the symbol itself, be it the poem or the window, might be the best that one can hope for and all the passion that one can need. Therefore, even though one might initially scorn the use of such a commonplace image as a window to introduce a collection of poems, Mallarmé leaves one feeling that even such commonplaces contain a capacity for passionate understanding that is barely concealed within the unbreakable shell of their opaque transparency.